By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Pam Shelton-Allen couldn’t have been happier.
Only four days before, she had married Jerry Shelton under the oak tree where he’d proposed. Both were avid cyclists who shared a love of the outdoors and went to jazz concerts every chance they got.
Jerry loved listening to blues guitarist Buddy Guy. He worked hard at his flooring business, and he loved Pam and the life they’d made together.
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon hiking and cycling. On the fourth day, they tackled cycling over a mountain pass.
“It was a beautiful ride on a beautiful country road through pine trees,” Pam said. “There was nothing but dappled light on the road and the wind in your face, and you’re with the one person who means the most to you in the world.”
At the halfway point, they stopped for a snack. Jerry teased his bride about feeding the squirrels. Life, they agreed, couldn’t get any better. Pam snapped a picture of Jerry sitting by the river. “He was wearing mirrored sunglasses, and you can see my reflection,” she said.
It turned out to be the last picture she’d ever take of him. On June 30, 2011, Pam became a widow.
Halfway through the long, daunting ride back, Jerry stopped. He told his wife he’d hit the wall.
“I didn’t know what he meant. He never ran out of energy. He just never did,” said Pam, who’d nicknamed him the Energizer Bunny.
Jerry was drenched in sweat and looked ashen.
“I did not recognize what I was seeing,” she said. “If I had recognized it, I could’ve called for help.”
Several minutes later, Jerry kissed his bride and said, “I love you. Let’s go.” He got back on his bike and started cycling up the mountain. Five minutes later, he stood up on his bike and collapsed.
Pam dove to the ground and desperately began CPR. She was quickly joined by a sheriff’s officer. Pam yelled, “Don’t stop! Whatever you do, do not stop!”
Life Flight arrived and took over the resuscitation efforts. “About 15 minutes later, a flight nurse with curly brown hair leaned down to tell me my husband was gone,” said Pam, who was 48 at the time.
“You go from feeling pure peace, joy and exhilaration. A split second later, your entire life is destroyed,” she said.
Doctors suspect Jerry had previously suffered several minor heart attacks without realizing it. He likely suffered another heart attack on that mountain, one that caused the 63-year-old’s heart to stop. He’d been diagnosed with high blood pressure several years before he began dating Pam in 2008. He exercised and ate right, but he hid his blood pressure readings because he didn’t want to worry her.
“If you go down the list of 100 things you’re supposed to do, Jerry did 98 of them. The one thing he didn’t do was take his blood pressure medication,” Pam said.
The day after their engagement — six weeks before they were married — Jerry agreed to see his doctor after the honeymoon.
“He used to tell me that he would live to be 110,” Pam said. “I believed him.”
After Jerry’s death, Pam’s adult children took turns sleeping by her side. She told her daughter to sell her bike — she couldn’t imagine riding it again. But 10 days later, during a 2 a.m. chat on the patio Pam told her daughter that she’d changed her mind.
“I had a choice. I could curl up in a fetal position and continue to wish I was dead,” she said. “Or, I could stand up, put one foot in front of the other and keep going and fight back. Fighting back was the only real choice for me.”
Her bicycle became her salvation.
“I rode my bike and I rode it hard,” she said. “I could feel Jerry with me. I pushed myself to the point of exhaustion, challenging my emotional pain with physical pain. I rode and I cried.”
With every mile, Pam felt herself getting stronger, physically and emotionally. Within a few short months, she had cycled more than 3,000 miles. In late 2011, she began volunteering for the American Heart Association.
“If I could help just one person change their life so one woman or one man does not become a widow, then it’s all worth it,” she said.
Not long after a high school reunion in 2011, Pam reconnected with Ron Allen, one of her best friends from high school. They began dating about a year later and were married last July.
Pam continues to be passionate about heart health and encourages others to pay attention and take action.
“If you have a husband, make him go to the doctor,” she said. “If you’re a woman, know that you’re not immune to heart disease. Know the signs. Know your numbers. Know your risk. Don’t end up like me.”
Editor’s note: The story was revised on Feb. 24 to remove location references.
Photos courtesy of Pam Shelton-Allen